April 22, 2015, marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day. A holiday first introduced by US Senator Gaylord Nelson and fellow environmentalists in 1970, Earth Day is now a world-wide celebration that seeks to raise awareness of environmental problems and human beings’ role in creating—and hopefully solving—them. Rochesterians use Earth Day, and usually the week—or even month—around it, as a time to reflect on their environmental impact, but also to work towards meaningful change in human-environment interactions. Taking a “think globally, act locally” approach, we plant flowers and trees, pick up litter, recycle, conserve water and electricity, hold environmental fairs, attend lectures, discuss films, commune with nature, and more, all in the spirit of conservation and beautification of our natural surroundings.
Mayor Robert Duffy addresses young volunteers wearing Clean Sweep shirts during Earth Day activities at the Genesee Valley Park pavilion, April 2007. From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab.
A group portrait of volunteers involved in an Earth Day clean up, April 2008. From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab.
Had I written this post on Wednesday, as I had originally intended, I would have been able to wish you a Happy Earth Day. Alas, before I knew it, Wednesday became Thursday became Friday, and the post remained unwritten. Fortunately for me, today happens to be another worthy, environmentally related holiday: Arbor Day! Better still for me, a historian who appreciates such things, Arbor Day predates Earth Day by nearly a century. And so it works out that I am able to wish you a very timely, “Happy Arbor Day,” and tell you a little about the history of this holiday (as I am wont to do).
Arbor Day was first celebrated in the United States in Nebraska in 1872. The goal was to plant trees to “spruce up” the Great Plains, so to speak. The idea for a holiday devoted to trees originated with newspaperman, nature enthusiast, and upstate New York native Julius Sterling Morton. Morton and his fellow pioneers realized that trees were important for providing fuel, building materials, paper (and, thus, newspapers!), erosion control, shelter from the sun and wind, animal habitats, and more. Not to mention trees are pretty to look at. As Morton himself proclaimed, “The cultivation of flowers and trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in man, and for one, I wish to see this culture become universal.” Beyond the pragmatic and aesthetic value of this natural resource, Morton recognized the responsibility humans have as stewards of their planet: “Each generation takes the earth as trustees. We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consume.”
Morton used his newspaper to spread the word about the value of trees and environmental stewardship and encouraged his readers to set aside a specific day to plant trees. In 1872, Nebraska’s Board of Agriculture backed his idea and declared April 10 the first official Arbor Day. Morton and his fellow Nebraskans reportedly planted over a million trees that year. Other states soon followed suit, including New York, with its 1888 “Act to Encourage Arboriculture.”
Since that time, Rochesterians have celebrated Arbor Day with the expected tree-planting ceremonies, some accompanied by more pomp and circumstance than others.
A group portrait of the 108th Infantry Regiment of New York, taken at Seneca Park during an Arbor Day tree planting ceremony, ca 1900. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.
A group of children raise their hands in the air as part of an Arbor Day celebration at Susan B. Anthony Park, April 2006. From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab.
A tree is planted during an Arbor Day celebration at Susan B. Anthony Park, April 2006. From the collection of the Rochester City Hall Photo Lab.
Washington Grammar School No. 26, on Clifford, was especially dedicated to celebrating the holiday in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, making Arbor Day the date of their annual picnic in Seneca Park. Our city’s enthusiasm for tree planting earned it recognition as a “Tree City USA” by the National Arbor Day Foundation in 1981, and every year since then.
Sometimes celebrated on April 22 (Morton’s birthday), Arbor Day has fallen anywhere from January to May, varying by year and location. When Earth Day appropriated the April 22 date in 1970, National Arbor Day became the last Friday in April (although different states still celebrate it at different times, depending on planting conditions). And so here we are, celebrating Arbor Day in Rochester on this last Friday in April 2015. Now go plant a tree! (By the way, our state tree is the Sugar Maple, for those of you who were wondering…)
~Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian
 “What is Arbor Day?” Arbor Day Foundation newsletter, https://www.arborday.org/celebrate/documents/learn-more.pdf, accessed April 24, 2015.